Cabinet Must Convene to Approve Lieberman's Appointment as Defense Chief, AG Rules

New defense minister expected to be approved by cabinet on Tuesday after Mendelblit expresses opposition to earlier vote by phone. The Knesset will then vote on the appointment Wednesday.

Avigdor Lieberman and Benjamin Netanyahu after signing their coalition agreement, Jerusalem, May 25, 2016.
Emil Salman

The cabinet’s approval of Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister will not be secured by phone as originally planned, but at Tuesday’s cabinet meeting, at the insistence of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. 

A senior Jerusalem official said that Mendelblit made it clear that a defense minister’s appointment was too important to be made by polling the ministers by phone, and as such the vote will take place at Tuesday morning’s cabinet meeting. This means that the Knesset vote on Lieberman’s appointment will not take place until Wednesday.

Lieberman’s appointment was meant to be approved by the cabinet last week, but the vote was delayed because of Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s threats to scuttle the appointment unless changes were made to the way the security cabinet works. There was no cabinet meeting Sunday, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had hoped to secure the ministers’ approval by phone Sunday but efforts to mediate between Bennett and Netanyahu led the premier to postpone phoning the ministers until Monday.

Meanwhile, though, Mendelblit contacted the Prime Minister’s Office and expressed his opposition to voting on the appointment by phone, and instead it will be dealt with Tues.

The tension between Netanyahu and Bennett hovered over Sunday’s security cabinet meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office. Two sources present who asked to remain anonymous said that the two did not shake hands or speak to each other during the entire meeting. “They were both ignoring each other,” one of the sources said. “Not a word was said about the dispute between them during the meeting.”

The even greater issue looming over the security cabinet meeting was the announcement that the police were recommending that charges be filed against the prime minister’s wife, Sara. Sources present at the meeting said Netanyahu looked harried during the discussion, which dealt with energy issues, and wrapped up the session after only 90 minutes. 

“He looked terrible, distressed and distracted,” said one source. “Netanyahu simply wasn’t there. His head was somewhere else and it was clear to everyone where that was.”

Evidence that Netanyahu was primarily focused on his wife’s case came 20 minutes after the security cabinet meeting, when he posted a message from the Netanyahu family on his Facebook page. “The police announcement contained no recommendation to prosecute Mrs. Netanyahu,” the post said. “Contrary to what’s been published, Mrs. Netanyahu committed no crime. The various claims appearing in the media will turn out to be baseless, as has happened with all the claims made against the Netanyahu family over the years.”

Both before and after the security cabinet meeting there were various efforts to try to mediate between Bennett and Netanyahu and resolve the crisis between them. In the wake of Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister, Bennett is demanding that a military secretary be appointed to the security cabinet and that the security cabinet ministers be provided with more security and diplomatic information than in the past. Bennett has threatened that his party, Habayit Hayehudi, would vote against Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister if his demands are not met. 

The Habayit Hayehudi leader reiterated Sunday that he would not budge from his demands even if it meant leaving the government. His party colleague, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, went even further, telling Army Radio yesterday morning that he would not budge even if it meant going to elections. 

Later in the afternoon, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman took a stab at trying to resolve things. He suggested that until the committee — named by Netanyahu and headed by former national security adviser Yaakov Amidror — submitted its recommendations for improving the work of the security cabinet, that acting National Security Council chairman Yaakov Nagel or one of his deputies serve as “security cabinet secretary,” responsible for briefing the ministers on defense and diplomatic developments.